The Volunteer Fire Lookouts Of Maine’s York County

David N. Hilton reports on a special breed of volunteers who staff lookout towers to safeguard their neighbors from fire.


The first forest fire lookout at Squaw Mountain in Little Squaw Township, ME, was placed into service on June 10, 1905. William Hilton of Greenville, then 19 years old, was the first observer, or “watchman,” as he was called. The first entry in the log kept by Hilton reads: “Commenced work...


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The first forest fire lookout at Squaw Mountain in Little Squaw Township, ME, was placed into service on June 10, 1905. William Hilton of Greenville, then 19 years old, was the first observer, or “watchman,” as he was called.

The first entry in the log kept by Hilton reads: “Commenced work Saturday, June 10, 1905; clear, South wind.” As he sat in a chair perched at the top of Squaw Mountain on June 24, he soon spied a wisp of smoke drifting along a railroad right of way. He left the chair in a bound and hurried part-way down the mountain to a logging camp, where he telephoned William Shaw, the chief fire warden, to notify him about the potential fire.

Hilton served as observer from 1905 through 1908. During the first year, he lived at the M.G. Shaw logging camp, making the trip up and down the mountain each day. The value of the Squaw Mountain lookout was demonstrated many times in the years that followed.

It was a special breed of men and women who staffed the remote lookout towers. In the early days, they moved into their camp and tower by walking or by tote team and did not leave until fall. They were usually good in the woods, hardy and dependable, with a knowledge of the surrounding countryside. They did their own cooking, sewing, camp repairs; cut their own fuel wood; and caught rain in barrels from the gutters at each corner of the camp for their washing. Some kept small gardens and maintained vegetable cellars. It was necessary to maintain high fences to keep out the deer. Marauding bears were another matter. Broken cross-cut saw blades were used to guard the windows against the raiding of these animals in their search for easy food.

Supplies were toted in and left in specially made boxes at the foot of the mountain to be backpacked up the steep trails by the watchmen. Attempts were made in later years to supply the watchmen via “free fall” and parachute drops, but this method was not successful.

From 1905 to 1907, the watchman’s only method of notifying the warden of a fire was to run down the mountain to report it! Squaw, Attean and Bigelow mountains had ground lines leading into lumber camps or offices. These first lines of communications, like the towers themselves, were paid for by the landowners. In 1909, with the creation of the Maine Forest District, came the rapid expansion of a fire protection system, with the growth of the telephone system into a giant web for each of the four geographical divisions of the district.

Moose caused a major problem with the telephone line systems. These animals were known to get entangled with low hanging wires and walk away, tearing off a as much as a half mile of wire, which was never found. During the spring patrols, moose were often found strangled or dead from exhaustion in their efforts to free themselves from the wire. Still another problem was the proper grounding of telephone lines against lightning. There were many instances of lines and telephone sets being knocked out of service by severe electrical storms. Many watchmen have related to some harrowing experiences with such storms.

The abundance of materials needed to sustain the system was also almost overwhelming – hundreds of barrels of split porcelain insulators packed in sawdust, hundreds of cases of glass insulators, strings of wooded brackets, miles of galvanized iron wires in half-mile rolls, many coils of double-twisted/covered lead-in wire, hundreds of wall telephone sets, cases of dry-cell batteries and hundreds of pounds of staples. There was also lineman’s tools, belts, climbing irons with straps and pads, various types of pliers for cutting and splicing wire, field test boxes, canvas bags for carrying insulators, etc. In addition parts such as switches, sleeves, coils and ringers had to be stockpiled.

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